LeNell Smothers Fears the End-times for Red Hook

Won't someone find a new home for LeNell’s?
Won’t someone find a new home for LeNell’s? Photo: Jeremy Liebman

Dire word came from LeNell’s today — the brown-spirits queen, much and justly beloved in Brooklyn for her spirited nature and vast bourbon inventory, says her store is hanging by a thread. We wrote last summer that the store had one year on its lease, and at the time LeNell Smothers hoped to find a new home in her beloved Red Hook — a neighborhood already threatened by Fairway, Ikea, and the loss of 360, among other changes. Her store flooded last week, a deal she had to move across the street has fallen through, and LeNell is contemplating a return to her native South. Her emergency missive, e-mailed to all her friends and customers early this morning, is below.

If you haven’t been by the store this past week, we have been in utter f’ing hell. Saturday night a leak that has been going on in the building for several months finally broke through into the store. When the water started coming down, it was a Red Hook moment at its finest. Several Red Hook folks banded together and helped us move half the store to the other side. We covered half the store in plastic best we could, called it a day, and went down to Bait & Tackle and had a beer. I was touched so deeply by the outpouring of Red Hook folks who helped us out. This is why I want to stay in this neighborhood. The support was overwhelming. As a neighbor hugged me and said, “LeNell, you are family!”, I broke down and cried.

The way neighborhood people banded together in our time of crisis was amazing. What was not so amazing was the landlord’s response. He actually stood in front of the store and laughed while we moved inventory. Neighbors and customers helped me stay calm. I was speechless! The superintendent of the building came in and apologized, saying that he’s been trying to get the leak fixed for months and the landlord is ignoring the problem. The landlord doesn’t live in the neighborhood and actually thinks he’s going to open a business in my space. (Hmmmmm….he works for Baluchi’s, does this mean he thinks he’s gonna open a restaurant? Who really knows.) I think he has no idea how he just pissed off many people by standing in front of the store sneering while we were in crisis. We are so eager to be out of this building that is sadly not cared for! This past week in addition to the flood, the gas was turned off due to landlord not paying his bill. Thank the heavens we don’t live in this building. The residential tenants have been in even more distress. So please pardon the mess and plastic sheeting and bear with us.

I’ve been really honest with y’all about the store situation. Our lease is officially up this month. I know it will take months for a formal eviction should it come to that. Sad to say that the space that we had a draft lease for fell through this week. It was for the vacant lot across the street next to the Good Fork. This lot is co-owned by Jimmy Buscariello and Greg O’Connell (who owns quite a bit of Red Hook including the Fairway building). We had architectural drawings, had agreed on basic lease points, and I’ve been thinking all along that we were just finalizing details. The space included the store on the first floor and the bar on the second. After discussing this project for nearly a year now, I get a visit from Greg recently telling me that he has just realized constructions costs will be more than he wants to pay. He won’t entertain thoughts of my partnering in building out the space. Just flat out pulled out at the last moment…which happens to be a few days before the end of my current lease. I’m in shock. I really thought this deal was practically done when Greg had me pay an attorney to draft a lease. Rarely is LeNell speechless. I am.

The other space we thought was workable in Red Hook, turns out to be a dud, as well. The owner has been telling everyone that we are moving into the space. Months ago I asked him for lease points and told him that I could not agree to anything less than a 10 year lease. Today out of nowhere, he tells me that he only wants to sign a five year lease. I won’t do it. It’s just not good business sense at this point. I refuse to keep working to pay someone else’s mortgage while I barely pay myself and have no hope for me and my hardworking staff to get ahead.

So folks, I just don’t know the future. I had really hoped to announce that we had a lease signed for this lot across the street and was so eager to break the news to you. I’m really just in shock. Storefronts in Red Hook sit vacant, vacant lots side idle, landlords daydream, and proven businesses like mine get put through hell. A boss of mine told me years ago, “If you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere.” Well, I think I’ve proved myself long enough. Maybe it’s time to head back South. Own a real home, eat real bar b que, and have a life. LeNell is broken.

When you come in and I’m dazed, bitchy beyond normal, on the phone like a lunatic, please don’t take it personally. Everything I’ve worked so hard for is hanging in the gallows.

Only an observer, or a landlord, with a heart of stone could read such a message and be unmoved. Without LeNell, what is Red Hook but a prettier version of Gowanus? Landlords, step up!

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LeNell Smothers Fears the End-times for Red Hook